The Home Office is under increasing pressure to halt any future deportations of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka after a senior judge accepted that there is credible evidence they could be tortured on their return.
The last minute decision led to approximately 50 Tamils being taken off a chartered deportation flight back to Sri Lanka on yesterday afternoon and signifies growing discomfort among the judiciary that Britain may be sending people back to their persecutors.
In the end the 150 capacity plane left Stansted airport with just 36 people on board. The Independent understands that 22 of the passengers were of Tamil ethnicity with the rest were Sinhalese or Muslim.
Over the last nine months Britain has forcibly removed hundreds of Sri Lankans on five separate charter flights despite growing evidence that some have been brutally treated once they land. Although some are visa overstayers and convicted criminals, many are also failed asylum seekers from the country’s Tamil minority who fear repercussions of returning to a nation with a dismal human rights record.
A thirty year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger separatists ended two years ago but human rights groups say torture, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings are still commonplace, particularly in heavily militarised north of the island where Tamils are the majority.
The Home Office insists that anyone who is deported is individually assessed to make sure that they are not at risk of torture. However Human Rights Watch has compiled 13 instances in the past two years where Tamils deported from European nations – three of whom came from Britain – were subsequently tortured including reports of rape, beatings and victims being burned with hot metal rods. The Foreign Office's latest report on human rights describes Sri Lanka as an area of "serious concern" when it came to abuses but that hasn’t stopped the Home Office from pressing ahead with forced removals.
The eventual departure of Thursday’s flight, which arrived in Colombo early this morning, was preceded by a frantic 24 hours of legal wrangling in the High Court as lawyers worked into the night trying to seek last minute injunctions to turn the plane around.
Shortly before the flight took off Mr Justice Eady issued an order stating that one individual should not be removed from the country citing “new evidence relevant to the risk of ill treatment.” Within hours more than 50 passengers were taken off the removal list, some of whom were already on their way to the airport.
The decision is not a blanket ban on deporting Tamils but immigration lawyers say it is the first time the judiciary has dissented from the government line that no-one being sent back is at risk. They hope they can use the order to help bolster their argument in future that Tamils who have engaged in political activity in the UK would be at risk of torture.
“We now have recognition from a senior judge that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka is a serious problem,” said Karim Assaad, a senior London based human rights solicitor who has many Tamil clients. “There is going to have to be some serious consideration by [immigration minister] Damian Green as to whether they can continue with these forcible removals.”
Once flight PVT030 took off lawyers also petitioned a duty high court judge in an attempt to get the plane redirected back to Britain. But after six hours in court the judge eventually refused saying that such a decision should be made by the Court of Appeal, not the High Court.
Human right groups say they intend to continue pressuring the government to halt future flight. Brad Adams, executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said: “It is absurd that one part of the UK govt is sending people back while another has just issued its annual report on Sri Lanka claiming that torture of and discrimination against Tamils is common.”
Keith Best, CEO of Freedom from Torture, added: “The decision by a High Court judge to grant an injunction to stop the removal of a Tamil on the basis of independent evidence of risks on return must be a wake-up call for the government. They should announce an immediate halt to removals to Sri Lanka and undertake a serious review of their policy. The government insists that anyone who is removed is individually assessed to make sure that they are not at risk of ill treatment, but there are now mounting cases of torture following forcible return to Sri Lanka. Clearly, the UK Border Agency failed to prevent these individuals being returned to serious harm.
He added: “As Freedom from Torture’s ongoing forensic documentation of torture shows, the risk factors are clear: Tamils with a perceived or actual association to the [Tamil Tigers] are at significant risk of torture on return to Sri Lanka. For many of our clients who returned after periods abroad, their activities outside the country, including claiming asylum and participation in peaceful demonstrations, have been recorded and are used against them in interrogation by Sri Lankan officials.”